Sleater-Kinney’s The Center Won’t Hold
When declarations of, “At least punk will be good now!” proliferated online after the election of Donald Trump in 2016, I’m not sure this is what those who offered their hollow comfort were expecting.
A ruthless demonstration of what it means to keep going, Sleater-Kinney’s ninth full-length record, The Center Won’t Hold, is a force of strength, a storming of the gates. It’s cocksure proof that the women who formed a band as college students in Olympia, Washington, in 1994 have lasted longer, burned brighter and said more than most other punk gods could hope for.
After a 10-course feast, the record closes on “Broken”, a song with a different kind of brutality from the punk fury that came before. Drawing on two decades of feminist resistance and a lifetime of overcoming, guitarist and vocalist Corin Tucker sings, “She, she, she stood up for us / When she testified / Me, me too / My body cried out / When she spoke those lines.” Singing about the testimony of Dr Christine Blasey Ford against then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Tucker’s voice is shattering. The toughness that forces its way through the rest of the record has receded, replaced by something about as strong as rice paper.
Carrie Brownstein may have emerged since Sleater-Kinney’s founding as the crossover star of the band – the moody memoirist wielding a guitar and a pout like a pair of equally dangerous weapons – but Tucker is the band’s emotional compass. The anthemic “Reach Out” is one of this record’s great examples of that.
Outside of anger and aesthetic markers and limited chords, punk has always been rooted in emotional realities, aware of its place and desperate for something greater, for people and things to be better. Speaking to The Guardian’s Laura Snapes, Tucker said she was inspired by “Stay” – Rihanna’s 2012 masterclass in pop tenderness – when she wrote of a depression brought on by a dramatic life upheaval and tempered by medication: “Reach out and touch me I’m stuck on the edge … The darkness is winning again … I can’t fight without you, my friend.”
The song’s jagged drama immediately calls to mind the work of album producer Annie Clark, best known as St. Vincent. Electronic murmurs and layered vocals magnify the reality of a woman adrift, as if only her shadow is there for company. Brownstein’s guitar roars protectively, but this is a picture of Tucker alone, on the verge, reorienting. Her body is her own again, she sings. But now what?
The Center Won’t Hold has already been framed by some fans and critics as a kind of eulogy for the band. The title track, which opens the record, signals a severe change in tone with industrial sonic distortions, while the urgency of drummer Janet Weiss forms an essential spine for the song – a cruelly ironic fact in the wake of her surprise departure after the record’s completion.
In a social media post, Weiss wrote: “The band is heading in a new direction and it is time for me to move on.” She acknowledged their impact and success, adding, “We were a force of nature.”
Hearing a member of the band refer to it in the past tense on the eve of a new record was hard for fans to stomach – for some, it was even harder than the news in 2006 that Sleater-Kinney was going on an indefinite hiatus. In the subsequent years, Weiss and Brownstein assembled a new band, Wild Flag; Tucker released two solid albums with the Corin Tucker Band; and, most notably, Brownstein and comic Fred Armisen created Portlandia, the beloved TV sketch show that ran for eight seasons and turned Brownstein from a queer punk pin-up into an A-lister.
In that time, internet nostalgia and Tumblr feminism conspired to revive interest in and respect for the long-dormant riot grrrl – the movement, punk subgenre and vehicle for feminist activism that birthed bands such as Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Tucker’s former band Heavens to Betsy and, eventually, Sleater-Kinney.
Old fans and new listeners were primed, then, for Sleater-Kinney to return in 2015. “Exhume our idols, bury our friends / We’re wild and weary but we won’t give in,” they sang on “Bury Our Friends”, the lead single from No Cities to Love, their first album in a decade. In her Pitchfork review of the record, Jenn Pelly said, “Weiss’ massive swoop is still the band’s throbbing heart, pumping Sleater-Kinney’s blood.” What life is left after the heart is removed? Or rather, after it decides there is something innately incurable and makes the choice to extract itself?
At its core, Sleater-Kinney is Tucker and Brownstein – something they have found themselves reminding fans of in the wake of Weiss’s departure. The latter is at her hungry-eyed, virile best in “Hurry On Home”.
From “hair-grabbable, grand-slammable” to “unfuckable, unloveable”, Brownstein depicts the severe swings in confidence and doubt that occur in a relationship typified by the kind of horny texts that filmmaker Miranda July deploys in the track’s music video. “I’ve made my mood your mood,” Brownstein sings, a line that captures the sticky, frustrating transference that comes from tracking someone’s emotions and relying on their frame of mind to dictate your own. Her humourless voice captures the self-disdain that comes from realising you’ve left a paper trail of how much you care. It’s embarrassing to be so open.
In a press release, Brownstein said the narrator of the darkly upbeat “Can I Go On” is a woman whose desire is used against her as she grapples with “the pressure to outwardly perform modes of joy, relatability, and likability”. In a digital moment of curated lives, of politics worn like accessories, capitalism has come for joy and hope and activism the same way it came for punk and feminism before – the things that gave Sleater-Kinney purpose and reasons for being. “Sell our rage, buy and trade / But we still cry for free every day,” howls Brownstein. Dread is one of the few things women are allowed to keep, something no brand is interested in harvesting just yet.
The persistence of trauma ties together the heroic “The Dog/The Body” and “RUINS”, a horror story in which memories conjure a “creature of sorrow”. In both, an army of voices joins Tucker, bearing witness to her troubling nostalgia. In “Bad Dance”, the personal battles expand to include a backdrop of apocalyptic proportions. A surging battaglia, it’s raucous and wild, but comforting in the knowledge that experts are in charge. These women know how to be leaders – they’ve been rehearsing their whole lives. Maybe all is not doomed after all.
Clark’s art-rock influence sits on the surface of these songs, and upon Weiss’s departure there was a surge of voices declaring it was the producer’s input that drove the drummer out. (Tucker and Brownstein insist it was Weiss’s idea to work with Clark in the first place.) The immediate blame applied to Clark’s contribution to the record was discouraging but hardly surprising; artist-producers are not rare, but female ones are, and not even the world of feminist punk is safe from accusations of infighting. The notion that Clark could work as any other producer does – in service to the song, devoid of artistic interference or a fog of ego – seemed impossible for some to accept, and imagined creative rivalries were framed as fact.
Articles in the press – including a recent New York Times feature – that describe Clark’s process as something of a chop shop, taking song demos and stripping them for parts, then reconfiguring them in her image, don’t help the case, even if she took that tack on “LOVE”, the record’s most tender, autobiographical and affecting song. Clark pursued a necessary move away from her signature cerebral bombast to encourage Brownstein and Tucker to interrogate their emotions. “LOVE”, as a result, serves as a tool of myth-making for Sleater-Kinney, cataloguing their formation, rise and bond. “Heard you in my headphones, slipped you my address / Call the doctor, dig me out of this mess,” they sing, referencing the titles of their 1996 and 1997 records.
It’s also a testament to the essential visibility of women over 40 in music – Tucker and Brownstein are aware that their existence and bodies and career longevity are a rarity now.
In a 2011 interview with The Quietus, Weiss commented that “it’s very difficult for women to be heroes. When you think about the heroes in our culture, most of them are men. I just want to be allowed the space to explore the idea of being heroic.”
Idolisation in the riot grrrl scene was granted with strict terms and conditions, and those women who dared to pursue the ambition of moving – to bigger towns or major record labels or new genres – were branded sellouts, deserters. Daring for more meant all those criticisms came early for Sleater-Kinney.
Unlike the bands frozen forever in that era, Sleater-Kinney assumed legend status and then kept going, melting away the amber that fans attempted to preserve them in. In forging on, they proved that punk rock about women and sex and politics and power was not the sole property of the men with top billing. For more than two decades, Sleater-Kinney made music about demanding a place in the canon, and that music eventually became canonical. When they returned from a hiatus they demanded to be considered in the present tense; this was not the epilogue of their life as a band.
Take it as a comfort or a middle finger, but Sleater-Kinney remind us on The Center Can’t Hold’s second single, “The future is here, and we can’t go back.” We’ll all do well to stop indulging that desire for nostalgia.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 17, 2019 as "Centre of gravity". Subscribe here.